As the number of measles cases approaches 1,000 throughout the country, Gila County has had no cases reported, according Michael O’Driscoll, director of the county’s health and emergency services department.
A recent report shows 91.4 percent of Gila County kindergarten students have been vaccinated against measles, with the percentages sitting between 95 and 100 percent for the reservations within the county. There is a nearly 6 percent personal exemption rate for kindergartners in the county. Gila County is among nine counties in the state with a vaccination rate below what is necessary to stop an epidemic.
Gov. Doug Ducey won’t support eliminating the ability of parents to claim a personal exemption for their children from vaccines despite a new published study showing the state’s largest county is at risk for a measles epidemic.
“Ultimately, decisions are going to be left to parents,” he recently told a group of business journalists in Phoenix.
The governor insisted that Arizona has been “pretty good” at using education to encourage vaccinations.
But the numbers from his own health department tell a different story.
State Health Director Cara Christ has reported that the percentage of kindergartners who claim a “personal belief exemption” from one or more vaccines has increased from 1.4 percent in 2000 to 5.4 percent last year. And there was a big jump in the past 12 months, with the exemption level now at 5.9 percent.
And for sixth-graders, the parents of 6.1 percent of children have a personal exemption compared to 1 percent at the turn of the decade and 5.4 percent just a year ago.
In mid May, the Lancet Infectious Disease journal said Maricopa County is one of 25 in the entire country where there is the greatest chance of an outbreak. Factors analyzed by the journal range from the prevalence of international travel to the rate of non-medical exemptions to laws requiring that children be vaccinated.
Ducey said he supports immunizations — he said his own three sons have been vaccinated — but he wants to focus instead on educating parents about the benefits. And he specifically ruled out overriding their preferences.
Ducey could not unilaterally eliminate personal exemptions. That would require legislative approval. Actually asking lawmakers to eliminate the personal exemption, however, is something the governor won’t do.
“I think a lot of this is about public awareness and public education,” the governor said, noting “there are things that have been put out on the internet” that he believes are misleading.
“Parents are concerned, especially with newborns and infants,” he said.
But Ducey said it’s not his role as governor to impose mandates — or to tell people who read anti-vaccination materials online that they must get their children inoculated. Instead, he said, it’s public education.
“What I want to do is get above the noise and this conflict and make sure that people have the facts that these vaccinations are safe and effective,” the governor said. “And I’d like to see their kids be vaccinated.”
Yet with all of that, Christ said the current rate of immunization of kindergartners statewide is 93 percent. That, she said is below the 95 percent level to create “herd immunity” which health professionals say is necessary to stop an epidemic should there be an outbreak of measles in the community.
In some areas, it’s far below that threshold.
Yavapai County, for example, has an MMR immunization rate of just 83.3 percent. There, according to state figures, one kindergartner out of every eight has claimed a personal exemption.
Mohave and Navajo counties are slightly better with an 88.4 percent immunization rate, with a personal exemption rate for kindergartners of 10.3 percent and 7.8 percent, respectively.
Part of what public health officials say makes the issue of herd immunity so crucial is that there are children who cannot be vaccinated.
Some of these have medical conditions. But some of that group includes newborns who are too young to get the MMR vaccine.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends the first dose at 12 through 15 months of age, with a second dose between the ages of 4 and 6 years old.
Teresa McQuerrey contributed to this story.